Friday, April 30, 2010

diamonds are NOT your best friend

My sister who is living in the United Arab Emirates recently shared a story with me about a close friend of hers who, after years of pressure from his parents, has consented to marry the woman of their choosing. That's what we, the un-initiated, usually think of when we hear about arranged marriages - parental coercion. Although my sister's friend could hardly be described as being forced into it (despite the cultural pressure, he does have a choice), there are people who do not have the freedom to say "no." Forced marriage is an ugly thing.

Still, I find myself more and more intrigued by the idea. I don't personally know anyone who has had an arranged marriage, though, so a couple of weeks ago I went online and ordered a book about arranged marriages. It cost a penny and was called, "First Comes Marriage: Modern Relationship Advice from the Wisdom of Arranged Marriages." I've been reading it over the past few days, and it's really rather weird.

Arranged marriage itself isn't weird - if we are going to define "weird" as "out of the ordinary" - since the fluffy concept of "wuv and marriage" as it has been marketed to us is a rather recent and localized invention. It's just weird to be reading a "dating-for-marriage" guidebook about arranged marriage that's written by a secular, urban, Indo-Canadian woman, for other women.

Even so, I find myself resonating with this book. It makes good sense to me, culturally speaking, to have arranged marriages, since marriages are the basic unit of culture. An affair or a little between-the-sheets hankey-pankey is often primarily a selfish act, but marriage is all about stability and community. It involves sacrificing personal freedom in order to build something that is greater than yourself.

I am getting ahead of myself, though.

I certainly can't fathom actually having an arranged marriage and Reva Seth, the author of this book, isn't even arguing for it. She just grew up in that culture and decided to dig a little deeper to see if she could better understand the experience. She agreed at the outset that coerced marriage was a morally repugnant practice, and then began interviewing women from a variety of cultures and backgrounds who had willingly entered into arranged marriage. For some of them, it was all they had ever known. Many, however, came to arranged marriage after years of less-than-satisfactory dating experiences. In all, she interviewed over three hundred women, and the things she learned from them astounded her. She abandoned many of her pre-conceived notions about what marriage ought to be and ended up using what she'd learned to sorta-kinda "arrange her own marriage."

Reva Seth makes a lot of good points - points that have elucidated my past and given me things to think about for my future. I'm going to brevify/outline her book for you because I know you're busy people and I doubt you have the time yourself to go interview three hundred people. Plus, whomever did the line-editing for this book was probably on some sort of narcotic, and if you try to read it yourself you'll most likely just get annoyed at the grammatical slips and completely miss the message. I'll try to make it a bit less gender-specific, because I think the lessons are more broadly applicable. So without further ado...

First Comes Marriage: Written by Reva Seth, Brevified by Josh Barkey

I. Introduction

- Arranged marriage is weird to us because it just isn't portrayed positively in the media. However, the popularity of TV shows like "The Bachelor" (et al) and the ubiquitousness of internet dating sites as interpersonal intermediaries suggest that attitudes may be shifting.

- We crave something different. The divorce rate in the United States has sort of leveled out around fifty percent, but that's probably because a lot more people are just shacking up. Arranged marriages, by contrast, have about a five to seven percent divorce rate, and surveys tend to indicate that whereas marital happiness starts a bit lower in these marriages, it generally climbs from that starting point and surpasses that of so-called "love matches."

- This doesn't necessarily mean that arranged marriages are the way to go - just that it is worth looking at their success secrets in order to re-conceptualize marriage from the very broken way in which we often think about it.

II. Lesson # 1: Your Man Doesn't Have to be Your Best Friend [see, I told you it was weird that I read this book]

- In the past, women mostly looked for a husband to provide a couple of things: financial support and children. It was part of the equation of what was necessary for life. This is no longer the case (and a good thing, too... a woman is not a kitchen appliance!) but the problem is that the pendulum often swings far in the other direction, and now a woman expects nothing less than everything... Mr. Shiny-Perfect.

- At this point, Reva Seth suggests that you take out a pen and paper and write down (as honestly as possible) what you're really hoping for in a spouse, and what roles you want this man to play. She says to describe an average day in your life with this person, and lists a bunch of things to get your brain thinking. She then suggests that your fantasy probably has more in it than you've ever realized - something like this: Love, Acceptance, Romance, Great Sex, Companionship, Honesty, Open Communication, Commitment, Doing Things Together, A Nice Family, Friendship, Understanding, Listening, Sharing, Emotional Support, A Connection, Genuine Intimacy, Shared Personal Growth, Financial Support, Social, Sense of Humor, and Being a Good Father.  She also suggests that this is more than one man could possibly fulfill.

- The next exercise she asks readers to do is to take the list they wrote and expand on each point. Write down every over-the-top fantasy. Then take that list, set it on fire, and say goodbye. "Just like any real breakup," she says, "you're now entitled to an evening of gobbling down peanut butter cups and ice cream while lounging in bed in your favorite ratty pajamas."

- Spouses are life partners, not life savers. Arranged marriages are based on the idea that you can build a good relationship by bringing together two people with complementary backgrounds and goals. Since people don't enter these marriages with all the detailed expectations and fantasies just described, they are free of a lot of loaded associations and can just enjoy their relationship for what it is - and do the work necessary to help it grow.  If the relationship didn't immediately give them everything they ever wanted or expected - well, no big whoop. For example, if they found their spouse didn't share their passion for horse-back fire-juggling, well then, they would be proactive and seek out friends who would share that interest.

- She suggests that freeing yourself from the myth of "The One" helps you in a number of ways. First, it increases your freedom by making you more of a participant in your life and not just a passive person waiting for that "someone" to happen to you. Second, it decreases dating tension because it frees you from requiring someone you are dating to fulfill a whole lot of unrealistic expectations - you can focus on what really matters most and stop sweating the smaller stuff. And third, it increases your chances of meeting a real person you can be with, because "The One" doesn't really exist.

III. Lesson # 2: The Musts Are All That Matter

- The people we date turn into the people we marry, and the idea of having a "type" is a myth that usually ends up being based on some barely-thought-out concepts absorbed from a seriously twisted culture. It's not about a list of likes and dislikes, it's about being brutally honest about yourself, your life, and what you want for the future. It is about figuring out your "Marriage Musts," which are based more on values and lifestyle choices.

- Helpless infatuation is stupid. Passivity is stupid. Sit down and write out what you honestly want. Putting it on paper is an important step towards making it real. Figure out what you don't want. Then get clear on what you do want.

- Reva Seth lists a whole lot of brain-prompts; but the basic idea is this: get detailed about core, value-based things and stay away from stuff like "favorite pizza toppings" and "votes the same way when watching the Oscars." After that, figure out who's the sort of person you want would be attracted to, and ask yourself if you are that person. If you want someone who cares for the poor, ask yourself what you do to serve the needs of the poor. If you want someone who takes care of their body, ask yourself if you are willing to work to take care of yours.

- In an arranged marriage, these are the sorts of concerns that the families will focus on. You don't want an arranged marriage, sure, but you can still take advantage of their methods to help you find someone who fits with who you really are. This will help keep you from becoming overwhelmed by their gloriously hot skin-sack-covering.

- Don't fall into the "just for now" syndrome. There are a lot of really, really bad reasons for which a lot of people stick with relationships and end up getting married when they were only really wanting a relationship to tide them over until they found a better fit.

IV. Lesson # 3: Commitment is the Opposite of Constraint

- Overcome the "One Foot Out the Door" syndrome. Arranged marriages succeed because people who enter them do not allow themselves to conceive of them as potentially ending. This allows them to work through the inevitable difficulties and to focus on their more important, core values. It also allows them to focus on the good things in their spouse, because they are not involved in a game of ongoing relationship-evaluation.

- Our culture teaches us to think that we call always "do better," and that we ought to be perpetually focusing on self-improvement. As Monique Chapman (radio host/author) says, "We live in a 'drive thru' society today. We want everything right now and are always searching for the next best thing. The media has sold the public the concept of throwaway relationships, that if we don't receive immediate gratification, we move on." This sort of attitude is death to a relationship.

- Cohabitation, studies show, generally decreases the chance of long-term relationship success because it contains within it the "I can always check out if it sucks" mentality. People who cohabit often "slide" into marriage out of fear or guilt or whatever, without putting a lot of thought into what they really want.

- Arranged marriages avoid this by making the whole thing a conscious, thoughtful decision. You can certainly slide into a lucky marriage or learn to make the best after the fact, but why leave something as important as that up to chance?

- So ditch your plan B. Partial commitment at any level will deeply damage your relationship. Your lack of complete commitment will affect your spouse's commitment. There should be some deal breakers - like physical abuse, extreme substance abuse, etc - but you should figure these out ahead of time and make them very clear to your spouse. Write them all down on a sheet of paper, including all your what-ifs and so-forths, exploring mentally what you would do if they were to happen. Then record them onto a cassette, wrap it up in that paper you wrote about what you want in a partner (if you haven't yet burned it), and toss the whole package off a cliff. Worry about that stuff if it happens, not before. Face your fears, ditch them, and commit yourself to total commitment.

- This level of complete commitment is very liberating. It makes it easier for couples to deal with problems, because there is no fear that problems will lead to break-up. Be active and practice positive thought and speech patterns with regard to your relationship. As the mouth speaks, so the heart becomes. And hang out with people who want you to be happy and will support your relationship regardless of how you feel on a given day.

V. Lesson # 4: It Doesn't Matter if He Doesn't Dance 

- Don't confuse common interests with shared values. You're not marrying a tennis partner or a stamp-collecting buddy, you're marrying a life-partner. It doesn't help a relationship to pretend that you have common interests, or to try to force what isn't there. You can show love for someone by being interested in their passions, but actually being passionate about those things is not necessary for a good relationship.

- Arranged marriages, obviously, are not all that concerned with shared interests, so they avoid a whole lot of pain and anguish. They recognize that it's a positive thing to have different interests than your partner - it enriches you both and takes the pressure off of both of you as you learn to accept and love each other for who you are.

- What matters is your "Marriage Musts." Everything else is just window dressing.

VI. Lesson # 5: Romance Needs a Re-Write

- There are a whole lot of people sinking a whole lot of money into marketing certain ideas of love and romance and what marriage is all about. These people do not care about you. If you ever doubt that, do a little research on the De Beers corporation and find out how they manipulated the world into believing that diamonds (expensive diamonds) were an essential part of a healthy relationship.

- Arranged marriages avoid a lot of this cultural garbage because, quite simply, that garbage is not a part of the culture of arranged marriage. Even people who date a lot or sleep around before having an arranged marriage often relax the crazy expectation of huge romantic gestures because they just don't expect that from an arranged marriage. This allows them to appreciate the very natural, organic ways in which their partner shows love - which often bear very little resemblance to the pre-packaged tripe marketed by movies, books, and bridal magazines.

- Reva Seth suggests that you try to re-write romance, by actually listing out the things that really matter to you and make you feel loved. Instead of writing down what you're "supposed" to want, write down what actually makes you happy. If you prefer tea in bed to champagne at midnight, write that down. And then, she says, consider sharing that list with your partner. Stop expecting your spouse to be a soothsayer. Own your relationship.

- In an arranged marriage, romance can have any definition you choose. It's user-specific.

VII. Lesson # 6: His Sex Appeal? It's All About You!

- Sexual chemistry is largely a biochemical thing at the outset of a "love match." That's all fine and good, but a positive long-term relationship depends more on choice than chance. If you focus on the positives in yourself and your relationship, your partner will seem more attractive to you and your sexual relationship will grow stronger.

- If you happen to start out with a strong physical connection... BONUS! But arranged marriages achieve long-term sexual health by realizing that sexuality is just one component of the bigger relational picture - which is defined not by a feeling, but by what you are building together as a couple.

- Again, it's about those "Marriage Musts." Make sure you've got them written out. Prioritize them, and write down why they're important to you. Even if you aren't getting someone else to arrange your marriage, focusing on them yourself is essential to being able to relax into your sexual relationship in a marriage that you have arranged.

- Bottom line: sexual attraction is more under your control than you think. Love yourself. Enjoy and appreciate your body, your decisions, and who you are and it will become much easier to love and enjoy your spouse.

[Side note: as hippie as this sounds, from my background as a Jesus-Fan this is absolutely true. You are awesome and you can love yourself - it's the first step to loving others.]

- Don't let a culture that has tied sex to marketing dictate your approach to your own sexual relationship.

VIII. Lesson # 7: Family Matters

- Arranged marriages take into account the incredibly crucial role that family plays in shaping who we are and how we approach the world. Traditionally, they did this for the very practical reason that the bride often went to live with her husband's family - so it was essential that she would get along with them. Even though this is generally no longer the case, it is true that you marry your spouse's family.

- You don't need a spouse with a perfect family (good luck with that one), but you ought to at least get a sense of why they are they way they are. Finding someone with a similar family background increases the chances that they will understand where you're coming from on both big and little things. It will also increase the chances that you share common values.

- It's one of the downsides of our very mobile culture that we have lost the sense of family-connectedness that can provide us with the community that we as humans crave. But even if you won't be interacting with your spouse's family all that much due to geographical or personal issues, it is still very important to know where your partner is coming from, because it puts things in context in a way that nothing else can.

IX. Conclusion

- We've all been brainwashed, and it shows in the failure of our marriages. For most of us, it's unlikely that we'll ever go back to the arranged marriages of many of our forbears. Still, we can use the lessons of modern-day arranged marriages to provide ourselves with some context for where we've gone so wrong, and some practical steps to getting back on track.

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